Eagerly awaited, though perhaps a few years too late, Marvel’s latest excursion of the bombastic kind – Black Widow – isn’t exactly reinventing the wheel. That’s not necessarily a bad thing though as Cate Shortland‘s venture adopts a more grounded mentality (at least for the most part), playing as a type-of Bourne Identity actioner that eventually escalates to typical explosive MCU fare, peppering welcome humour, family drama, and the topical notion of women’s autonomy over their own bodies and minds throughout.
Starting off in 1995 in a suburban setting that feels far removed from the action that will eventuate, Shortland introduces us to a seemingly loving, all-American family. Black Widow‘s mood shifts almost instantaneously though as the father figure (David Harbour) informs his wife (Rachel Weisz) and their two young daughters (Violet McGraw and Ever Anderson, the latter looking the spitting image of her actress mother, Milla Jovovich) that they have only an hour to pack their belongings and leave.
Over a sobering, informative opening credit sequence – set to a slowed-down, alt-pop cover of Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” – that clues us in on the controlled lifestyle of what it is to be a Black Widow, we’re thrust 21 years later where our focused family have been torn apart by a figurehead know as Dreykov (Ray Winstone), leader of a facility known as The Red Room, a training ground where kidnapped girls are automised to become the perfect assassin.
Set after the events of Captain America: Civil War, which helps explain why, in this instance, she has no Avenger brethren to assist her, the “current day” Natasha (Scarlett Johansson) is living off the grid, trying to evade the Secretary of State (William Hurt) and surviving (just) in a secluded trailer, with the kindly Rick (O-T Fagbenle) supplying the necessities for her to get by; though a romantic connection is evident, the Eric Pearson (Thor: Ragnarok) script smartly keeps their interactions as more supportive than sexual.
As much as the film stands as a (long overdue) solo effort for Johansson’s character – and, as expected, she carries it effortlessly, injecting a humanity into the role that she gradually introduced after her more objectified introduction in 2010’s Iron Man 2 – it wisely places a significant focus on Florence Pugh‘s Yelena Belova, Natasha’s younger sister, who similarly has to face her own Dreykov-influenced past. Given that we go into Black Widow aware of the character’s ill fate, it only makes sense that Yelena’s Black Widow be formed and focused on in a way that suggests she carry the title on for further projects, but, even in a timeline where Johansson’s character lived, Pugh’s incarnation is so well constructed that we would want more of her regardless.
Both Natasha and Yelena having their own agendas towards confronting Dreykov furthers the film’s family temperament, with an unlikely reunion forming between the two rival siblings -Johansson and Pugh revel in their back-and-forth banter – and their similarly estranged parents. Harbour’s re-emergence in the film leans into the humour of riffing on the traditional superhero, with his Red Guardian moniker something of a Russian counterpart to Captain America, looking nothing short of ridiculous as he squeezes into his decades-old attire, whilst Weisz’s Melina, a former Black Widow herself, is the straight-woman of the crew, her motherly instincts evidently maintained after all these years.
Opposing as their personalities may be, their ultimate motivation is uniform in wanting to eradicate Dreykov and The Red Room, freeing the mind-controlled army of Widows in the process. It’s here in the film’s over-scaled finale that the standard Marvel practice comes into play, with Shortland clearly aware how to stage an action set-piece; aside from the aforementioned climax, a prison break sequence set to the incoming threat of a snow-laced avalanche solidifies the Australian filmmaker (known for smaller, more dramatic material, such as 2004’s Somersalt and Berlin Syndrome from 2017) as a talent informed in both the storytelling and aesthetically pleasing aspects of her films.
Managing to be one of the more generally accessible Marvel titles, as aside from a few rogue references and a post-credit sequence that very much caters to the Disney+ audience this is a film that functions rather straightforwardly as a spy thriller cut from the same cloth as the Daniel Craig-led Bond entrants, Black Widow, whilst not necessarily worth the extended wait, succeeds as proof that a female voice – both in front of and behind the camera – is a tone that benefits the Marvel canon.
FOUR STARS (OUT OF FIVE)
Black Widow is screening in Australian theatres from July 8th, 2021. It will be available to stream on Disney+ with Premier Access* from July 9th.
*Additional fees apply to Premier Access